Ellen's the new 'American Idol'


Paula who? Contrary to what some crazed fans may think, Fox’s decision to hire funny lady Ellen DeGeneres as American Idol’s fourth judge is one of the best TV ideas I’ve ever heard. It even tops Jon Hamm and John Slattery’s amazing casting on Mad Men (note to Matt Weiner: those two need to stop quibbling over such silly things as whether or not to stay married to your pill of a wife and get back to drinking their lunches together again).

I must admit my bias upfront and state that I am an unabashed Ellen fan. I love her fresh approach to life — she’s been in Hollywood a long time yet cynicism doesn’t seem to touch her. Her comedy has a sweetness to it that connects to real people.

That also seems to be what attracted Idol’s producers at FremantleMedia to the comedian:

“Beyond her incredible sense of humor and love of music, she brings with her an immense warmth and compassion that is almost palpable,” said Idol executive producer and FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz in a statement. “She is one of America’s foremost entertainers, and we cannot wait to have her join our team.”

It’s that warmth and compassion that makes DeGeneres the perfect fit for Idol. Simon Cowell aside, Idol is a sweet, family show. It’s about plucking kids off the street and turning them into stars. It’s the modern representation of the Pygmalion myth that everyone responds to – it’s the American dream set to karaoke.

Ellen is also that. As Hollywood’s first out lesbian, she’s had to overcome some objections to continue her career. Her sitcom was a huge hit, but she fell off the radar for a bit once the show’s ratings declined and the show was canceled. But she hasn’t let what people may think stop her from being who she is. She’s gone on to marry her partner, Portia di Rossi (also a funny lady in her own right) and she’s done all of that without getting too involved in the hype. She’s just gone on doing what she does, enjoying her personal life and entertaining people.

Even her statements about joining the show were sweet, funny and to the point: “I’ve watched since the beginning, and I’ve always been a huge fan. So getting this job is a dream come true, and think of all the money I’ll save from not having to text in my vote.”

While I’m a huge Ellen fan, I’m actually not much of an Idol fan. Sure, I check it out from time to time, but it’s so breathlessly covered everywhere on the Internet I never feel like I actually need to watch it to know what’s going on. I’ve also come to see the show as a one-trick pony and I’m tired of that trick. But I’m planning on coming back to see Ellen, and I’m sure that will be true for millions of other female viewers (who, like me, are rapidly aging out of the demographic, but that’s beside the point). That’s the one area where Ellen should really shine – no one ever tuned into American Idol to see Paula, but people will come to the show to hear what Ellen has to say. And she’ll add a pitch-perfect element of humor the show has always lacked.

Ellen gets something — besides bagfuls of money unloaded at her door — out of this too. Appearances on Idol should have a halo effect on the ratings of Ellen’s syndicated talk show. Idol remains primetime’s biggest platform – what better place to promote herself and her show?

On the flip side, Paula’s decision to leave the show that resurrected her career was about the worst decision I’ve ever heard of. (Worse than even T.R. Knight’s decision to leave Grey’s and march off into obscurity.) Now that Ellen’s stepping in, no one will even remember that Paula once sat on that judging panel. Don’t worry about Paula though — she’s off guesting on Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva and co-hosting some show on VH1 with Seacrest and opining that she should have a talk show. She doesn’t need American Idol and its many, many millions of viewers. She’ll be fine.

I do wonder who will now be Cowell’s foil. With Paula gone, he’ll have no one to roll his eyes at but the contestants. That might get a little boring for the already bored Cowell.

Maybe Ellen can keep Cowell laughing too.